Free Throw Shooting: Mental Practice May Hold Key to Success

During the 2003-04 NBA Season, not one team averaged over 80% from the free throw line; Dallas led the league at 79%. The simplest shot in basketball and the best players in the world execute successfully less than 8 out of every ten times.

For some players, it is a mental issue; they are otherwise good shooters, but for some reason they cannot convert from the free throw line. However, many players shoot with some physical error, as they continue to practice and shoot a couple hundred thousand shots during their lifetime, but they show only minuscule improvement.

The American ethos is to practice more; however, this practice simply ingrains poor shooting techniques and insures the player never improves greatly. Instead, these shooters need to observe their mechanics to detect the fault causing them to miss so many opportunities.

The San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan is, by most experts’ estimation, the best player currently playing in the NBA (with apologies to Shaq and KG). However, Duncan is a terrible free throw shooter. While Shaq’s woes are constant media-fodder, Duncan’s free throw plight is on the DL, as Duncan is held in such high esteem that he is labeled the “Big Fundamental.” However, how can one with such great “fundamentals” shoot only 59.5% from the free throw line?

Duncan does not need more practice; he needs to alter his free throw mechanics. Many shooters-even at the highest levels-miss free throws due to physical error. Tim Duncan, the NBA’s poster-boy for fundamentals comes set and takes a deep breath with the ball near his waist and his hands on the side of the ball. To shoot, he rotates the ball as part of his shooting motion. His shot, therefore, has a natural flaw; he incorporates inconsistency into his shot. Instead of simplifying his shot, he adds a greater degree of difficulty which results in his poor (below 70% career) free throw shooting. To improve his free throw shooting, Duncan needs to change his approach and his hand position.

Once the player shoots with proper physical mechanics, mental mistakes are the main reason why a player misses free throws. The free throw is a unique moment in basketball, and therefore, a unique skill. It is the only moment when the action stops, but play continues. Golf is said to be a mental sport because, unlike most sports, the ball waits for the golfer and the golfer has plenty of time to concentrate, focus and think (which oftentimes does more bad than good). A free throw is similar; the action stops and waits for the shooter who has plenty of time (10 seconds) to concentrate, focus and think.

The shot is always the same, regardless of where one attempts a free throw. The free throw has no variations; one shoots from the same spot, with no defensive pressure, no movement and no need to hurry. Consequently, human error-mental or physical-causes all missed free throws.

For many shooters, it is mental error. Players receive the ball and think about the importance of the shot, the consequences of a miss. They feel pressure. With the pressure, one gets anxious and tense. When tense, muscles fail to perform to perfection and shots are missed. Ken Baum, in The Mental Edge, writes: “Bodies work perfectly; minds get in the way.”

Players shoot hundreds, if not thousands of free throws during the course of a season. Unless the player shoots with a serious physical mistake in the shot’s mechanics (Duncan), the player likely makes a high percentage during practice; he feels comfortable and has exhibited enough skill at the line to feel some measure of confidence.

However, instead of allowing the body to do what it has done countless times before, the mind thinks, worries and analyzes, and the body fails. Michael Jordan said: “I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot. Why? Because when you think about the consequences, you always think of a negative result.”

Jay Mikes in Basketball Fundamentals says, “This is because the mind cannot center on two things at once. As one set of sensations or images moves into the center stage of your mind, the others fade into the background,” (46). In other words, the player who shoots with doubt and anxiety centers his attention on his inner thoughts, as opposed to concentrating on his visual senses and seeing the target or the basket. The focus must be on the target, not on inner doubts, to shoot optimally and perform to one’s physical capabilities.

Most coaches encourage players to have a routine at the free throw line; to do the same thing every time. The reasoning is this consistency will ease the tension.

More importantly, players should approach the free throw with a positive mindset. Instead of focusing on their last miss, the player must focus on one of the thousands of makes. A good approach is to close one’s eyes and visualize a perfect free throw attempt, from start to the swish. While visualizing the made free throw, the player can take a long, deep breath; this helps the player catch his breath and slow his breathing rate as he shoots. The combination of the relaxation technique (deep breath and control breathing) and the mental imagery (visualizing a perfect free throw attempt) places the player in an optimum state of mind for peak performance.

With the visualization of the made free throw fresh in his mind, the player steps forward, does his routine (the more basic the better) and calmly knocks down the free throw. While some suggest focusing on a key word as one shoots, Mikes believes one should concentrate fully on the target, which is the middle of the basket. “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary,” (Former MLB player and manager Ray Knight).

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